This post is part of a series on the Ralph O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute (ROSEI) website that will feature Q&A’s with our affiliated researchers. Next up is Yury Dvorkin, an incoming research professor in the Departments of Civil and Systems Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering who is also a ROSEI core faculty member.
How did you first get involved with or learn about sustainability?
Yury Dvorkin (YD): It was in 2010 when I was deciding where to go for graduate school, and at the time I was very interested in vehicles. I was thinking I would pursue a graduate degree either in energy sustainability or in robotics, but then I came across a Popular Mechanics magazine in Russian that featured an article about electric vehicles (EVs). When I started reading about EVs my reaction was “Cool!” The more I got into EVs, the more I was interested as to why one would like to adopt them and how it could affect the power grid if more and more people began using EVs. That was my first big thought about sustainability in general.
Why are you passionate about sustainability/renewable energy?
YD: It comes from two things, the first of which is the societal challenge which I share with everyone as a human being. I believe our generation’s big call is climate change because it connects to everything. By working on electricity-based solutions, I contribute to the fight against climate change, which constantly has new problems arising. So, there is always work to be done.
The second aspect that makes me passionate is the intellectual side. There have been a lot of efforts seeking to devise technologies that can lessen emissions. At ROSEI, Susanna Thon and Sara Thoi work on efficient storage and solar cells. Chao Wang and Jonah Erlebacher work on carbon capture. Dennice Gayme and Charles Meneveau work on wind modeling. All these technologies combined source into the power grid one way or another, so we need to understand how we can use systems engineering to orchestrate and synchronize these technologies to meet our societal goals, efficiently and reliably.
We also must realize the demand for electricity will grow because more things we use will be powered by electricity. How do you solve this problem? You turn to systems engineering to find ways to synchronize the different components accurately. For example, very efficient solar panels and storage materials from Susanna and Sara’s research will affect how much wind power generation need be accommodated by the grid; and how much wind generation is available will in turn be informed by Charles and Dennice’s work.
It’s about three challenges: 1) How do we avoid emissions by using clean energy resources? 2) How do we mitigate emissions if we can’t avoid them? and 3) How do we adapt the way we consume electricity to be more efficient?
How does your commitment to sustainability play out in your everyday life?
YD: Because I was born in a large city, then lived in Seattle and New York City before coming to Baltimore, I don’t have a driver’s license. I use public transportation. Baltimore is the first city I have lived in where public transportation has a comparably low usage. When I take my bus to the Homewood campus, the driver knows my name, where I’m from, and, sometimes, he doesn’t even check for my ticket. He even knows where my stop is. It’s a fantastic experience, but I wish more people in Baltimore and everywhere else in America would use public transportation (it’s also more convenient and, in my case, saves time!)
Also, my wife works in the waste management sector, so I am very familiar with waste separation. Sometimes it is hard to read the labels, but I’m trying my best to find a way to recycle as much as I can.
Tell us about your research, and what aspects currently or in the future tie into sustainable energy efforts?
YD: I work across three big problems. First, energy economics and electricity markets because it’s a fundamental mechanism that helps us understand how different energy resources available to us and energy-related information can be routed to ensure we supply our electricity efficiently and reliably. That has a variety of engineering tasks underlying it, as well as economics. This is related to the integration of renewable energy and storage resources where these resources are connected through power electronics. We need new ways of operating these units and pricing them according to the services they provide to the power grid, which are different from the capabilities of and services provided by conventional generators. The other thing that is related to the better operation of the power grid is that we need better models describing human behavior and preferences for electricity consumption so that we can design better forecasts.
We also need to plan what the power system of the future will be. That includes answering a variety of questions around technology, figuring out not only how much solar or offshore wind we want to use, but also how we will store it.
You also need to factor in resiliency needs and supply chain limitations. As our society becomes more dependent on electricity, it also becomes more vulnerable to power outages and we need to re-think how power grids must withstand various threats, existing and emerging. How can you ensure that electricity demands won’t be affected by something like a natural disaster or cyberattacks? It’s a hard problem to address because you can’t imagine every threat. This isn’t something to focus on for the benefit of tomorrow; it’s a task you take on for the next generation. Similarly, looking in the future, we have to be more careful about planning availability of resources to expand our power grid. Because the current assumption is if your analysis says “build energy storage or an offshore powerplant here” that these technologies and their components will become available. That’s not a guarantee because supply chains can be very complex. How can you modify supply chains to meet our demands even considering geopolitical constraints that might arise?
Is there an article, book, or podcast that people can check out to help better understand the area you work in or your specific work?
YD: I’m a fan of the “A Matter of Degrees” podcast by Leah Stokes.
What advice or suggestions do you have for students who want to pursue careers in sustainable energy?
YD: I encourage students to explore as broad of a field of sustainable energy as they can, but at some point to hone in on a specific issue. There is a difference between breadth and the depth of knowledge. It is important to be motivated about the overall issue of sustainability, but if you don’t select a specific niche, it is harder to make an impact.
Also, have appreciation for how both computation and hardware work. Whatever computational algorithm you’re going to build, it will be deployed through hardware that controls its physical aspects, so you need to remember that.
I also tell them to work on your ability to communicate their ideas clearly because it helps build leadership skills. You almost never get 100% consensus, so you must learn how to balance making decisions while respecting other team members’ thoughts and ideas. Communication is critical to doing this successfully.
You joined Hopkins in 2022. How have you found the sustainable energy community here to be thus far?
YD: Everyone is friendly, collaborative, and welcoming here. I’m impressed with the breadth of energy research here. The ROSEI Summit in mid-January opened my eyes to how energy research is interwoven with the academic fabric here at Hopkins, far exceeding my bravest expectations. At the summit, I learned about six people whose research could work well with mine, and I have now had lunch with each of them. Ironically, one of them is Jonathan Elliott, an assistant professor of economics at the Krieger School, who was at NYU before joining Hopkins, like I was previously. We arrived at Hopkins around the same time, and had never met until coming to JHU. I love that ROSEI brings people together.